Twin Protests

Metaphors for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rarely come this readymade: two protests, one pro-Palestinian and one pro-Israeli, kitty-corner from each other in a busy Midtown intersection. Their voices amplified by PA systems, the protests' leaders exhort their audiences with rigidly ideological slogans. Passing cars offer the occasional supportive honk to one faction or another. Never do the two sides meet. They can hear only the loudest calls from their enemies.

That was the scene last night around Israel's consulate at East 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue in New York City. The occasion, of course, was to protest, or support, Israel's bombing campaign in Gaza and to protest, or support, Hamas' rocket fire into southern Israel. The attendees were well armed with signs and chants. They assembled in chilly weather, corralled behind steel barricades, as dozens of NYPD officers watched over them and shooed along pedestrians.

The pro-Palestinian group filled the entire block between 42nd and 43rd, easily outnumbering their counterparts across the intersection. (“I need backup,” a man said into his phone in the pro-Israel encampment.) Many of the Palestinian activists I spoke to said they had heard about the protest on Facebook, where organizations like Al-Awda NY and the Muslim American Society had spread the word.

Justin Wooten had heeded the Facebook call. A student at Temple University, Wooten had been in town for a Communist Party conference and would be returning to Philadelphia after the protest (a small suitcase rested at his feet). I asked him what he thought of the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas. “Zionism is inherently racist,” he said. “This violence is not surprising.”

Nadda Azizi was handing out flyers near the Palestinian protest area. Wearing a headscarf and a relaxed disposition, Nadda looked barely old enough to be in college. She said that, through her sister, she had become affiliated with the Muslim Youth Center, which takes part in protests but also performs charitable work, such as relief for Hurricane Sandy victims.

“This was an emergency protest,” Nadda said. But like many other protestors, she had come with prepared materials—a flyer describing conditions in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, and a timeline of the events of the last week. The lone photo was one I had recognized being passed around on Twitter earlier in the day: BBC journalist Jihad Misharawi, holding the body of his infant son, killed by an Israeli airstrike.

An elderly man in a yellow corduroy jacket stood patiently by, waiting to speak. He identified himself as Wilkie Silverglad, an 81-year-old East Village resident, semi-retired from the insurance industry, who now spends his time “de-programming” people who don't share his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—views which, in his telling, resembled revisionist Zionism. “I show them the errors of their ways,” Silverglad told me.

Gazing at the pro-Palestinian protestors, Silverglad was despondent. “I believe that this is one of the most racist groups extant on Earth,” he said.

I asked Silverglad if he saw anyone there who he might be able to de-program. He wasn't optimistic. “It is a combination of ethnics, extreme leftists, and misguided people,” he said.

Across the way a round of “Od Avinu Chai” broke out, competing with calls for “Not another nickel, not another dime, no more money for Israel's crimes.”

I made my way across the street, my entrance greeted by an amplified voice claiming that “Hamas is Al Qaeda” and that “killing the leader of Hamas”—he presumably meant Ahmad Jaabari—“is like taking out Bin Laden.”

The pro-Israel crowd, then numbering around 50 and carrying banners excoriating Hamas and CNN alike, listened as the speaker, Rabbi Avi Weiss, head of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, warned, “No place in Israel is safe. There's no place left to hide.”

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I met Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald. Lincoln Square Synagogue, with which he's affiliated, had emailed him about the protest. “If there were no missiles, there'd be no response on Israel's part,” Rabbi Buchwald said.

“They won't let us live in peace,” he said of Hamas, mild recrimination in his voice, as if Gaza's leadership were a student who had disappointed him.

Sarri Singer, the director of an organization called Strength to Strength, which brings together victims of terrorism and their families, and herself a survivor of a 2003 bus bombing in Israel, agreed that Israel's bombing campaign was justified. “They elected a known terrorist group as their government,” Singer said.

Singer repeatedly told me that President Obama needed to do more than offer statements of support for the Israeli people—she was vague on details—and also feared that the United States had become complacent about the terrorist threat. Hamas should concern Americans, she said. “We all have to be prepared.”

I asked if she meant that Hamas was a threat to the United States. “I think every terrorist over there has connections with one another,” she replied.

As I left the pro-Israel protest to return to the other side, a young man stopped me. An Israeli, he was Jacob Kimchy, the founder and executive director of One Heart, an organization that works with victims of terrorism. Kimchy founded One Heart after his father was killed in a 2002 bombing.

“There's no one here,” Kimchy lamented. “The other side are no more than terror supporters.”

That day a missile had landed behind his mother's home in Rishon Lezion. It's an old building, he said, so there's no bomb shelter. He had been up all night, worried.

“We need an international force to go into Gaza,” he said, both to stop the rockets and to observe that the IDF was acting in accordance with the law.

I returned once again to the Palestinian protest and began to feel like I was a ball in a tennis match. Protestors around me shouted, “Long live the Intifada!” From the other side, a return volley: “Am Yisrael Chai!”

The pro-Israel protest had filled out but still had fewer members. Their chants were quieter, their rhyme schemes clumsier. They couldn't match Al-Awda NY's neatly printed signs, which, stapled to long poles, swam above our heads, a low canopy of revolutionary anger. No matter: the Palestinian partisans had already announced that they would return the next day to protest at 5pm. As long as the bombs and rockets continued to fall, both sides would have a chance to try again.